The Lean Plateau

Many organizations trying to deploy lean get great results for the first couple of years, then things tend to stall or plateau. This is in spite of continued effort from the “lean team.”


We Still Don’t Have a Lean Culture

This was the comment by the Continuous Improvement director of a pretty large corporation. They had been running improvement events for several years, everyone had pretty much been through one.

Each of the events had made pretty good strides during the week, but the behavior wasn’t changing. Things were eroding behind the events, even though everyone agreed things were better.

It was getting harder and harder to make more progress. They had hit the plateau.

What Causes the Lean Plateau?

While it might not be universal, what I have seen happen is this:

The implementation is led by a small group of dedicated technical experts. They are the ones who are looking for opportunities, organizing the kaizen event teams, leading workshops, and overseeing the implementation of lean techniques.

While this works in the short term, often the last implemented results begin to erode as soon as the lean experts shift their attention elsewhere.

At first, this isn’t noticed because the implementation is proceeding faster than the erosion.

However the more areas that are implemented, the faster the erosion becomes. There is simply more “surface area” of implemented areas.

At some point, the rate of erosion = the rate of implementation, and the lean team’s efforts start to shift from implementing new areas to going back and re-implementing areas that have eroded.

The lean team’s capacity becomes consumed re-implementing, and they spend less and less time going over new ground. They are spending all of their time “spinning the plates” and no time starting new ones.

Key Point: The lean plateau occurs when the level of implementation effort and the rate of erosion reach an equilibrium.

In the worst scenario, sooner or later financial pressures come into play. Management begins to question the expense of maintaining an improvement office if things aren’t getting significantly better on the bottom line. What they don’t see is that the office is keeping things from getting worse, but they aren’t called the “maintain what we have office” for a reason.

Breaking the Lean Plateau

When I was a lean director in a large company, we were confronting this very question. We had a meeting to talk about it, and quickly started blaming “lack of management commitment.”

Leaders Weren’t Stepping Up

In any given area, after education and planning, our last step was always to have a major effort to put flow production into place. Since the performance of the area would be substantially better, we expected the leaders to work hard to continue that performance.

What actually happened in an area was “implemented,” was the line leaders in that area – supervisors, managers, senior managers – weren’t working to look for erosion and correct it.

Instead, when a problem was encountered, they were making some kind of accommodation that compromised flow. The effect of the problem went away, but things had eroded a bit.

What we thought we learned: The weren’t “supporting the changes.”

What we really learned – though it was only realized in hindsight: This is the mechanism of “erosion.”

Flow production is specifically designed to surface small problems quickly. If there is no mechanism to detect those problems, respond, correct, and learn, then the only thing leaders can do is add a little inventory, add a little time, add an extra operation.

As Hirano put it so well decades ago:

All waste is cleverly disguised as useful work.

But Our Current Condition was Incomplete

There were outliers where it was working.

As we talked, we realized that each of us had experience with an outlier – one or two areas that were actually improving pretty steadily. Trying to understand what was different about these bright spots, we looked for what they all had in common. Surprisingly:

  • They were areas with no dedicated improvement teams.
  • They ran few, if any, 5-day kaizen events.
  • They were geographically close to one of us (senior “Directors”).
  • One of us had decent rapport with the area management team.
  • We each had an informal routine with them: We would drop by when we had time, and walk the work area with the area leader. We could discuss the challenges they were facing, how things were operating, go together to the operations concerned, and look at what was happening. We could ask questions designed to “sharpen the vision” of the leader. Sometimes they were leading questions. Most of the time they were from genuine curiosity.
  • By the time we left, there was generally some action or short term goal that the leader had set for himself.

Even though we “lean directors” had never worked together before, our stories were surprisingly consistent.

The Current Condition (Everywhere Else)

aka Dave’s Insight

The next logical question was “If that is what we do, what happens everywhere else? What do the lean staff people do?”

Now we were trying to understand the normal pattern of work, not simply the outcome of “the area erodes because the leaders don’t support the changes.”

Dave confidently stood up and grabbed the marker. He started outlining how he trained and certified his kaizen leaders. He worked through the list of skills he worked to develop:

  • Proficiently deliver the various topical training modules – Waste vs. Value Add; Standard Work; Jidoka; Kanban and Pull;
  • “Scan” an area to find improvement opportunities.
  • Establish the lean tools to be deployed.
  • Organize the workshop team.
  • Facilitate the “Vision”
  • Manage the “Kaizen Newspaper” items
  • etc

and at some point through this detailed explanation he stopped in mid sentence and said something that brought all of us to reality (Please avert your eyes if you are offended by a language you won’t hear on network TV):

“Aw… shit.”

What we realized more or less simultaneously was this:

Management wasn’t engaged because our process wasn’t engaging them.

Instead, our experts were essentially pushing them aside and “fixing” things, then turning the newly “leaned” area over to the supervisors and first line managers who, at most, might have participated in the workshop and helped move things around.

Those critical front line leaders were, at best left with a to-do list of ideas (kaizen newspaper items) that hadn’t been implemented during the 5 days.

There was nothing in the structure to challenge them to meet a serious business objective beyond “Look at how much better everything runs now.” The amount of improvement was an after-the-fact measurement (or estimate) rather than a before-we-begin imperative.

So it really should be no surprise that come Monday morning, when the inevitable forces of entropy showed up, that things started to erode. The whole system couldn’t have been better designed for that outcome.

Why the Difference in Approach?

In retrospect, I don’t know. Each of us senior “lean directors” had been taught, or heavily influenced by, Toyota-experienced Japanese mentors, teachers, consultants.

When we engaged the “outlier” areas, we were following a kinder, gentler version of what they had taught us.

On the other hand, what we were teaching our own people was modeled more on what western consultants were doing. Perhaps it is because it is easier to use forms and PowerPoint for structure than to teach the skills of the conversations we were having.

Implement by Experts or Coached by Leaders

That really is your choice. The expert implementation seems a lot easier.

Unfortunately the “rapid improvement event” (or whatever you call them) system has a really poor record of sustaining.

Perhaps our little group figured out why.

There are no guarantees. No approach will work every time. But a difficult approach that works some of the time is probably better than an easy path that almost never works.

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